The Fulton County Commission has ordered a full audit of the county health department following mismanagement of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant money earmarked for HIV prevention efforts. Fulton is in the center of one of the nation’s hardest hit areas in terms of new HIV infections.

The order follows an investigation by WABE that revealed the department had failed to spend some $8.7 million of $20 million in CDC grant money it had received since 2012.

As to the source of the problems, all parties point to Dr. Patrice Harris, director of health services for Fulton County, who, as principal investigator of the grant, is responsible for executing the county’s HIV prevention strategy.

Dr. Patrice Harris was grilled by Fulton County Board Chairman John Eaves during a June 17 board meeting. (Screenshot)

Dr. Patrice Harris was grilled by Fulton County Board Chairman John Eaves during a June 17 board meeting. (Screenshot)

Grant money executor grilled by Fulton County Chairman

Harris appeared before Fulton County Board Chairman John Eaves and the rest of the commission in a tense June 17 meeting, where Eaves grilled her.

Harris claimed that the county was approved for $28 million of CDC grant money for 2012 to 2015, and that $7 million of that had been returned. She also said they had made a carryover request to the CDC, or a request to recoup the funds that were returned, in the amount of $2.1 million.

“To me if we got $28 million, first of all I’d be jumping up and down, and then I’d do everything in my power and my means to make sure as much of this money if not all of this money is utilized,” Eaves said. “And even though you’re seeing the potential of $2.1 of the $7 million that we can recapture, to me that’s still going to leave a balance of $5 million. That’s a lot of money.”

Eaves went on to question Harris’ claims that these numbers were reported to the county manager, and then asked her whether she felt this was a good reflection on the Fulton County government.

“It is not, commissioner, certainly,” Harris replied. “Nor me.”

History of mismanagement of HIV prevention funds in Fulton County

This isn’t the first time an agency in Georgia has had trouble allocating funds for HIV prevention. Local HIV/AIDS activists complained in 2011 about the Georgia Department of Public Health’s HIV Unit, whose responsibility it is to distribute CDC funds to state health departments and HIV/AIDS agencies. At that time, a CDC spokesperson told the Georgia Voice millions in HIV prevention funds were being returned.

“From fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2009, the Georgia Department of Public Health averaged an annual award of approximately $7.93 million and requested to carryover funds on an average of 8 percent [or about $634,000] per year,” CDC spokesperson Scott Bryan told the Georgia Voice in 2011.

“Essentially, if a health department has unspent funds at the end of the year, that money is returned to CDC. The state health department can request those unspent funds be carried over and added to the following year’s budget (funds),” Bryan told the Georgia Voice at that time.

Fulton’s current problems are common, as health departments across the country have been adjusting to the CDC’s decision in 2012 to change policy by shifting hundreds of millions of dollars in prevention funds away from the states and moving the money directly to the local level.

‘We’re going to get to the bottom of it’

When asked by Georgia Voice what his initial reaction was to the mismanagement of funds by the Fulton County Health Department, Chairman Eaves responded, “Extreme disappointment.”

Eaves, who along with fellow commissioner Joan Garner will be two of the elected officials pairing up with HIV-positive youth for the Equality Foundation of Georgia’s upcoming HIV Youth Policy Advisors Program, vows to make things right.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of it and find out why these moneys were not expended, especially considering the gravity of the HIV/AIDS problem in Fulton County,” he said. “The larger issue is why we weren’t informed about this. Why didn’t we know about it? I feel that the department heads that oversee the dollars are responsible for informing the board, especially in situations like this where there’s problems.”

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality and a member of the Georgia HIV Prevention Community Planning Group, says the Fulton County Commission has acted appropriately considering the degree of urgency in the matter.

“We certainly need to know what all the problems have been to move forward, but we need to move forward quickly,” he told Georgia Voice. “It is appropriate to do an audit and take a look at things system-wide. I would hope that doesn’t delay the implementation of some changes that hopefully could take place in the next month or two so this program can get back on track.”

Chairman Eaves won’t put a timetable on the audit at this point, citing a need for feedback from Fulton County Auditor Anthony Nicks, but does say, “We’ll find out very shortly.”

psaunders@thegavoice.com | @patricksaunders

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